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Eco-efficient IT: Marketing adores a vacuum

Andy Lawrence, research director for eco-efficient IT at analyst firm The 451 Group, says the green debate needs a lot more metrics and a lot less marketing

When it comes to green IT — that ill-defined, global term that takes in the energy efficiency and sustainability of computing — nobody can say that there is a shortage of activity, nor a paucity of advice.

In little over a year or so, the IT industry has grown a new R&D wing, focused on reducing power consumption and improving the environmental footprint of its products; at the same time, the marketing strategists, seeing both threat and opportunity, have wheeled into action. News of alliances, campaigns, initiatives, conferences and briefing papers has been clogging up the in-tray.

For most of 2007, The 451 Group has been watching all this with growing interest, and this month we are publishing our first comprehensive report in this areaEco-efficient IT: The eco-imperative and its impact on suppliers and users — as well as initiating regular coverage.

The report, which includes our first-pass examination of the products and strategies of all the major suppliers, as well as a survey of user attitudes, comes up with a list of clear conclusions, and identifies both technologies (such as virtualisation) and strategies (for example, enterprise-wide IT power measurement) that are likely to help buyers reduce their energy consumption. We have also been able to identify, for the first time, a cluster of start-ups that are active in this area — companies such as Faronics, Verdiem, Modius and 1E. At present, however, levels of investment and the number of companies involved are small.

Green dollars
It is obvious that energy efficiency is no flash in the pan and this partly explains why companies such as IBM, Dell, Sun and Google are investing so much for the long term, both in making their own operations more eco-efficient, and also in R&D, products and services. There is money in eco-efficiency.

While the first surge of activity in this area might be coming from the suppliers, we think they are right in their assessment that buyers will increasingly drive the agenda. Data-centre operators, especially, have no choice: not only is the cost of power rising dramatically relative to the cost of computer hardware and software, but there are growing concerns about the actual availability of energy for large data centres, especially in cities such as London and New York. For the moment, logistical and financial problems caused by overheating, as well as power and space shortages, are overshadowing the more popular environmental agenda. Even so, there is increasing public and legislative pressure to control CO2 emissions, and IT has a strong, proactive role to play. Not only is IT's use of power currently profligate (meaning the opportunity for reduction is great) but it is clear that IT has a big role to play in helping all enterprises reduce their overall CO2 footprint.

Hard facts needed
The most striking takeaway from our research into energy efficiency to date, however, is the need for better science, precision, measurement and reporting. It is a lack of rigour in these areas that has given many marketing departments the opportunity to "greenwash" their products and make claims that are difficult to substantiate and sometimes plain wrong.

This lack of rigour is everywhere: user organisations, for the most part, don't know how much energy they use or on what; serious studies on aggregated energy use by IT are few and far between, and widely used figures for IT's CO2 emissions are clearly suspect; even forecasts about power prices and energy availability are confused and often contradictory, undermining return-on-investment arguments; meanwhile, environmental benefits resulting from innovation are expressed in dozens of different ways, some of them facile. In this environment, IT suppliers are innovating, investing and even leading, but their claims for their products are difficult to assess and will need close scrutiny in the coming months and years. To date, there are few rigorous, widely accepted benchmarks. The Green Grid, Energy Star and others are trying to address this but, if the performance-measurement wars of the 1980s are anything to go by, supplier politics and marketing spin will still make direct product comparisons difficult.

The positive message from all this is that the IT energy-efficiency movement is showing all the signs of a technology and market wave in an excited, early stage. There is a lot of innovation, controversy and deal-making to be done, as well as profits to be made, but, ultimately, all enterprises, not to forget the planet, should benefit.

Andy Lawrence is research director for eco-efficient IT at industry analyst company The 451 Group.